There are frequent references to two texts in particular for the subject of mockery in a Christian context. So let’s be clear from the outset. I do believe that 1) The Scriptures both display and teach mockery and 2) That there is a proper time – and way – to engage in such mockery. The most appealed to texts in this vein are 1 Kings 18, and Galatians 5. Additionally, there are also Christ’s denunciation of the Pharisees in Matthew 23, and God’s mocking challenge to the idols, in Isaiah. So, while it’s plain in the Scriptures that both the servants of God and God Himself engage in mockery, is it not the case that there should, also, be principles by which we are to engage in such action?
First, it must be said that it’s not enough to simply say “Scripture says it is okay to engage in mockery.” While this may be true, by good and necessary consequence – it also needs to be defined what Scripture defines for us in terms of the boundaries of acceptable speech and behavior. In other words, what else does Scripture say on the topic of the Christian’s speech and actions? Thus, secondly, not only do we need to examine the texts where mockery in engaged in – but a variety of texts which address the positive and negative prescriptions for Christian living. For instance, Ephesians 5, Colossians 4, and 1 Timothy 4. Not to mention the frequent references to an attitude of reverence, and gentleness. So, let’s take a general look, and see what we shall see.
First of all, let’s look at 1 Kings 18.
Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long [will] you hesitate between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” But the people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I alone am left a prophet of the LORD, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men. Now let them give us two oxen; and let them choose one ox for themselves and cut it up, and place it on the wood, but put no fire [under it]; and I will prepare the other ox and lay it on the wood, and I will not put a fire [under it]. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD, and the God who answers by fire, He is God.” And all the people said, “That is a good idea.” So Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one ox for yourselves and prepare it first for you are many, and call on the name of your god, but put no fire [under it].” Then they took the ox which was given them and they prepared it and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon saying, “O Baal, answer us.” But there was no voice and no one answered. And they leaped about the altar which they made. It came about at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, “Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened.” So they cried with a loud voice and cut themselves according to their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out on them. When midday was past, they raved until the time of the offering of the [evening] sacrifice; but there was no voice, no one answered, and no one paid attention. Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” So all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD which had been torn down. Elijah took twelve stones according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD had come, saying, “Israel shall be your name.” So with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD, and he made a trench around the altar, large enough to hold two measures of seed. Then he arranged the wood and cut the ox in pieces and laid [it] on the wood. And he said, “Fill four pitchers with water and pour [it] on the burnt offering and on the wood.” And he said, “Do it a second time,” and they did it a second time. And he said, “Do it a third time,” and they did it a third time. The water flowed around the altar and he also filled the trench with water. At the time of the offering of the [evening] sacrifice, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, today let it be known that You are God in Israel and that I am Your servant and I have done all these things at Your word. “Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that You, O LORD, are God, and [that] You have turned their heart back again.” Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.
Now, I think everyone will admit that this is probably the most (although arguably, given Jesus’ comments to the Jewish leaders) “in your face” confrontation in the Scripture. Elijah is supremely confident that God will prevail – so much so that he openly mocks their idol, to the faces of its prophets. The term behind “mocked” is fairly straightforward. הָתַל. It’s not really questionable as to what it means here – Elijah did, and did intentionally, mock the priests of Baal. However, the objection might be made – as it is rendered in the ESV, that verse 27 is referring, in one portion, to Baal supposedly going to the restroom. There are a variety of arguments which purport to support this translation, but I’m not convinced that such is the case. Whatever the case might be, and not discounting the textual variant present in the word behind “gone aside”, (siyg vs ciyg) only one major modern translation renders it as “is relieving himself” – the ESV. It must also be noted that there is a significant difference, even there, between Elijah perching on their altar as if to relieve himself and mentioning that perhaps Baal was absent for that purpose. I do not, however, believe that such is a proper translation of this text. It’s often presented as if this is most definitely what it is speaking of, but the major translations don’t render it that way, and neither do most historical exegetes discuss it as such.
Secondly, let’s look at Galatians 5.
I have confidence in you in the Lord that you will adopt no other view; but the one who is disturbing you will bear his judgment, whoever he is. But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished. I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves.
Again, fairly straightforward. I don’t think it’s questionable that Paul is intending, and likely out of frustration, to mock the zeal of the Judaizers. If they are so zealous for circumcision, why not take it all the way? Cut themselves off! However, what does Paul mean by this? Many take this to mean that they should perform the “second circumcision” (euphemistically) – but again, this isn’t an open and shut translational issue. As Gill points out,
The word here used answers to the Hebrew word (xpq) , and which is often made use of by the Jews in solemn imprecations; we read of a righteous man, (wynb ta xpqm) , “that cut off his children”: the gloss upon it is,
“he used to say, when he made any imprecation, (ynb ta xpqa) , “may I cut off my children”;”
that is, may they die, may they be cut off by the hand of God, and I bury them;
“says R. Tarphon , may my children be “cut off”, if these books of heretics come into my hands, that I will burn them;”
and says the same Rabbi may I “cut off” my children, or may my children be cut off, if this sentence or constitution is cut off, or should perish. There is another use of this word, which may have a place here, for it sometimes signifies to confute a person, or refute his notion.
While it is often titillating to believe that Paul is being outrageous in his comment here – I’m again, not convinced that he intends that they should make themselves eunuchs. Of course, there are some very cogent arguments for this being Paul’s intent. Even if this is the case, however – is not Paul making, by means of absurdity, or biting satire, the point that he made in verses 1-6? Neither circumcision or uncircumcision is of any benefit. If you submit to circumcision, you are separated, or estranged, from Christ. To return to it is to remove the offense – the stumbling block – of the cross. This is probably the strongest case to be made for “off-color” argumentation – but let’s think about the issue further. If it is true that Paul is speaking of them emasculating themselves here – he is making the point that such an act would be personally self-destructive. It would ruin the very sign they are seeking to preserve. Such misguided zeal for returning to the Old Covenant sign is equivalent to destroying the very sign itself. Not only that, but it would ensure that there would be no posterity to follow after. What this would not be doing is answering the objector in the same fashion as the objector made his objection. He would be pointing out the absurdity, by means of an overzealous application of the Old Covenant sign, of making a mockery of that sign. This can also be seen by his statements in the following verses – his admonition against bondage is counterbalanced by an encouragement to use liberty wisely – and then to fulfill the moral, not the ceremonial law, as Christ commanded. So, while there is a cogent argument that Paul does say that he wishes that they would emasculate themselves, he still does not do so in a crude fashion, but to demonstrate that such “law keeping” would effectively eliminate the sign itself – as does returning to the yoke of slavery under the New Covenant.
In Matthew 23, Christ uses several comparisons to unclean things to illustrate the religious hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders. Once again, it is a case of keeping the ceremonial law, but not the moral. Something which looks clean, but is only superficially so. Christ very clearly mocks external godliness – that which is practiced for the eyes of others. Their willingness to lay burdens on the backs of others, but not to take them up themselves, with even a finger. Their mincing of words regarding oaths. Neglecting the weightier provisions of the law – straining gnats, and swallowing camels! He goes on in this vein for quite some time – but notice something. While he does speak of “dead men’s bones”, and the like – he doesn’t bring out a skeleton as an illustration. I think that encapsulates the central point of disagreement. It is not necessary to engage in that which you object to in order to better illustrate your point.
Ephesians 5:4 tells us that “there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks.” It’s readily apparent that it immediately refers to sexual references – but it must also be noted that Calvin emphasizes that “εὐχαριστία, though it usually signifies Thanksgiving, admits of being translated Grace” – which comports rather well with the next text we will deal with. It is obvious that sexual jesting is prohibited, I believe that it might also be warranted to consider those things considered “impolite” or that which we would typically euphemise in polite conversation be considered as things “not fitting” – but instead, that we might be gracious in our speech.
Colossians 4 tells us “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. [literally, redeeming the time] Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.” As Gill points out, redeeming the time “… denotes a careful and diligent use of it, an improvement of it to the best advantage; and shows that it is valuable and precious, and is not to be trifled with, and squandered away, and be lost, as it may be; for it can neither be recalled nor prolonged.” For the first phrase, he relates “such walk as wise men, who walk according to the rule of God’s word, make Christ their pattern, have the Spirit for their guide, and walk as becomes the Gospel of Christ; inoffensively to all men, in wisdom towards them that are without, and in love to them that are within; and as pilgrims and strangers in this world, looking for a better country; and so as to promote the glory of God, and the good of souls.”
Here is what was most interesting to me about Gill’s exposition of this verse, however.
“But then it is incumbent upon them to behave wisely towards them, with the simplicity of the dove to join the wisdom of the serpent; they should walk inoffensively towards them, and do nothing to provoke them, to injure and persecute them, but take all prudent methods to gain their affections, escape their resentment and wrath, and obtain their liberty of worshipping God without disturbance; they should give to all their due, tribute, custom, fear, and honour, to whom they are due, and owe no man anything but love; they should submit to every ordinance of men and be subject to the higher powers, not only to escape wrath, but for conscience sake, and should give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; they should pray for kings, and all in authority; for the prosperity of the nation, city, and place where they are, for their carnal relations and neighbours, and even their very entities, and do them all the good, both for soul and body, that lies in their power, and as they have opportunity; and by so doing, they will heap up coals of fire on their heads. Such a prudent walk, and wise conduct, is necessary on account of the Gospel, that the public ministration of it may be continued, that it may spread and get ground, and that it may not be reproached and blasphemed; and on the account of them that are without, that they may not have any stumbling blocks laid in their way, and they be hardened in their impiety and irreligion, and be more set against the truths of the Gospel; and also on account of believers themselves, who ought so to converse with the men of the world, that they are not partakers with them in their sins, and have their manners corrupted by them, or the vital heat of religion damped, and they become dead, lifeless, lukewarm, and indifferent to divine things, which is often the case through an indiscreet and imprudent walk with such men.”
I don’t think anyone can add much to that, save that the application here seems to be quite fitting.
1 Tim 4:12 says; “Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.” It might be noted that The objection could be made, “but what if we do not speak offensively, but act offensively” – the apostle here links speech and conduct to the same virtues – and exhorts Timothy to be an example to others therein. Is it a positive example to, as Sye himself said, engage in “childish pranks”? Another commenter noted that Luther was fond of scatological humor and examples – to which I responded that Luther was fairly unanimously and frequently censured for those same activities by both his fellows and his opponents. Whether your point was good or not, the means by which you illustrate that point should be a good example to others.
Finally, I would note that the keystone apologetic text, 1 Peter 3, has a very interesting introduction – and a very interesting verses in the immediate context. Obviously, it begins with the admonition that we are to sanctify Christ as Lord in our hearts – and to engage with unbelievers in gentleness and reverence. I would, however, have you note verses 9 and 17. Verse 9 says that we are not to return evil for evil, or insult for insult. To put it into some of our common terminology here, we aren’t to adopt their presuppositions for even a moment. If our response to something like “piss Christ” is “toilet monument” – are we not exchanging insult for insult? In verse 17, we are told “For it is better, if God should will it so, that you suffer for doing what is right rather than for doing what is wrong.” Adding to the offense of the Gospel by inserting additional foolishness, or another stumbling block does not serve your case, or the cause of Christ. I would submit to you that at that point, you are reviled for entirely the wrong reasons, and as such, this serves to cast yet another veil over the eyes of those who are perishing. As teachers, we have a greater responsibility to be above reproach when we engage with the world.
I don’t write these words out of a sense of “competition”, or out of envy, or any other motivation than brotherly correction. I’m glad that Sye is out there fighting the good fight – but I’m not sure that the good fight does, or should, include toilet seats. Mockery, if we are to engage in it, must not be concerning inappropriate, or needlessly offensive subjects. To add to the offense of the Gospel simply because mockery is permissible is to abuse our liberty, and to damage the witness of that Gospel, despite however good our intentions might be.